The Boarded-up HouseMay 3, 2011
A month ago I got an email from a reader, Mick, about Augusta Huiell Seaman. Seaman was an author of girls’ books who wrote from around 1910 though the 1940s, and while her early books were historical novels, she soon found herself a very nice niche writing books about contemporary teenage girls solving mysteries with a historical element. The Boarded-up House is the first of these mysteries, and it’s kind of great.
Joyce Kenway and Cynthia Sprague — best friends since they were little — live almost next door to each other. There’s just one building in between: a Colonial mansion that existed before the town that surrounds it, and which has been shut up for as long as anyone can remember. One afternoon, Joyce’s cat Goliath gets into the house — a board covering one of the basement windows has rotted away — and the girls follow him inside. What they find there is pretty weird: not only is the house still completely furnished, the plates from the occupants’ last meal there are still on the table. The girls decide to investigate and figure out what happened, and eventually they do.
The mystery is kind of predictable, and unlikely coincidences abound, but Joyce and Cynthia are engaging characters — Joyce is the imaginative, adventurous one, while Cynthia is more stolid, but not all of the good ideas are Joyce’s, and by the end it’s clear that Cynthia is just as cool as her best friend (as long as you think it’s cool to be a little bit square, and — well, I do).
The best part, though — the kind of magical part — is the way Seaman engages with history. I mean, part of it is the thrill of exploration and discovery. Books where people unearth old and beautiful things are almost always awesome. But there’s also something else happening — a sort of compression of history. With the help of the newspapers they find lying around, the girls figure out the the house must have been deserted in 1861, and they’re like, “Oh, wow, that’s a long time ago — more than forty years.” And…forty years is not that long a time. It was kind of jarring, actually, and I had to start wondering whether that made the Civil War a lot more recent than I usually consider it, or whether I’m in the habit of thinking of 1905 as a lot more recent than it actually was. I mean, probably it’s the latter, but for a minute the history of the United States seemed incredibly surreal to me, in kind of a cool way.
I’m not surprised that Seaman seems to have a loyal fanbase, and I expect that some of the people reading this blog are part of it. And those of you who aren’t might want to check her out, especially fans of girls’ mystery series, and probably people who like Jane Abbott.